Born to Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Prinsep Duckworth, educated largely at home where she was given free run of her father’s extensive library, Adeline Virginia Stephen became one of the major figures of twentieth century English literature and a member of the Bloomsbury Group. She wrote nearly everything but poetry – biography, essay, drama, novel, short story, letters, polemic – and assumed a formative role, along with Eliot, Pound, Joyce, and Stein, in the Modernist movement, essentially a literary and aesthetic assault on the Victorian heritage. From a prolific output, she is likely best known for several works: Mrs Dalloway (1925); To the Lighthouse (1927); Orlando (1928); A Room of One’s Own (1929); and The Death of the Moth and Other Essays (1947). In her fiction she sought, as she put it, to capture “this loose shifting material of life,” and in order to do that, she experimented boldly. In her non-fiction, she challenged received assumptions: in A Room, she revised English literary history by including women writers, and encouraged her readers to write their own stories; in Three Guineas (1931), she wrote a stinging polemic linking male sexuality and the war culture. In 1912 she married Leonard Woolf; he was her faithful support: together they founded the Hogarth Press (1917). Leonard was the recipient of one of the most touching love letters ever written, left for him by Virginia on that day in March 1941 when she drowned herself in the River Ouse. The following quote collage gives some sense of her life and thought:
1. Letter, 22 September 1926
I like people to be unhappy because I like them to have souls. We all have, doubtless, but I like the suffering soul which confesses itself. I distrust this hard, this shiny, this enameled content.
2. A Writer’s Diary, 21 April 1928
And yet the only exciting life is the imaginary one.
3. A Writer’s Diary, 12 April 1921
What I had feared was that I was dismissed as negligible.
4. “The Moment: The Artist and Politics”
Art is the first luxury to be discarded in times of stress; the artist is the first of the workers to suffer. But intellectually also he depends on society. Society is not only his paymaster but his patron.
5. Mrs Dalloway
Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death.
6. Jacob’s Room
As for the beauty of women, it is like the light on the sea, never const to a single wave. They all have it; they all lose it.
7. The Waves
It is strange that we who are capable of so much suffering, should inflict so much suffering.
8. “Moments of Being: Am I a Snob?”
The snob is flutter-brained, hare-brained creature so little satisfied with his her own standing that in order to consolidate it he or she is always flourishing a title or an honour in other people’s faces so that they may believe and help him to believe what he does not really believe – that he or she is somehow a person of importance.
9. The Years
Pleasure is increased by sharing it. Does the same hold good of pain. . .Is that the reason we all talk so by increasing the surface diminish them.
10. To The Lighthouse
It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision.
11. Diary, 25 October 1920
Why is life so tragic; so like a strip of pavement over an abyss.
12. Letter, 31 March 1928
Suppose one had wine every day, at every meal – What a enchanted world!
13. Letter, 18 June 1939
. . .how it liberates the soul to drink a bottle of good wine daily and sit in the sun.
14. Letter to Leonard Woolf, 28 March 1941
I want to tell you that you me complete happiness. No one could have done more than you have done. Please believe that. But I know that I shall not get over this: and I am wasting your life. It is this madness. Nothing anyone says can persuade me. You can work, and you will be much better without me. You see I can’t write this even, which shows I am right. All I want to say is that until this disease came on we were perfectly happy. It was all due to you. No one could have been so good as you have been, from the very first day till now. Everyone knows that. V.